Use of Fake News Narratives and Memes to Generate False Memory

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In this paper, we discuss the science of false memory and how misinterpretations are formulated through both fake narrative stories and fake visual aids to build false memories. In the Fridenberg & Silverman textbook*, we study that the hippocampus is responsible for the consolidation of information from memory, including both episodic and autobiographical memories. This helps us ​consume​ and ​understand ​information, particularly memories of past events, and to make sense of novel information presented to us.

As we consume information through social media, including fake news often repeated through memes and mass circulation, we establish through this paper how such fake information is often ingrained in our brains as fake memories over time. I choose this particular topic as it relates to my research on memes and helps inform my decisions in building a better media consumption platform with my startup, memoirs .

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Use of Fake News Narratives and Memes to Generate False Memory
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Through this paper, we first discuss the false narrative paradigm developed by Loftus and Pickrell, including the use of false narratives by Loftus and fake photographs by Wade et al. to cultivate false memories. As we develop an understanding of the power of suggestion and how such false memories are formed, we then explore these researches in context to modern-day media consumption through the internet and the more recent viral phenomenon of memes to propagate such information. We discuss how fake news narratives are crafted to aid in false memory formation and are amplified through the use of memes. Finally, this paper establishes the influence of memes and fake news narratives in developing false memories.

More than two decades ago, Loftus and Pickrell demonstrated the ease of persuading people to remember false childhood events. They developed a procedure that came to be known as ​a false narrative paradigm​, in which adult subjects were given narrative descriptions of their own childhood and were then asked to remember and describe their memories of these events. They were told that all of the narratives were provided by their family members; however, the researchers introduced a fake narrative that was confirmed to be not true by the family members.

Lost in a shopping mall, The false narrative introduced by Loftus and Pickrell described the subject being lost in a shopping mall but eventually returning back to the family by an elderly person. They found that 25% of the participants falsely remembered not only the incidence of that event but even novel details about their being lost. This was one of the first demonstrations of scientific evidence by controlled experimentation that completely false events can be implanted into memory. Remember, this was before the movie ​Inception​ came in.

Implanted memory of 14-year-old Chris

In the 1993 case study by Loftus, a 14-year-old Chris was told the fake story of his being lost by his brother as if it was true. In two days, Chris began to recall his feelings about the incident — ‘That day, I was so scared that I would never see my family again. I knew that I was in trouble.’ As time progressed, his false memory began to rapidly expand from ​recalling ​a conversation with his mother and even the stranger to, in a few weeks, saying: “I was with you guys for a second, and I think I went over to look at the toy store, the Kay-bee toy and uh, we got lost, and I was looking around, and I thought, ‘Uh-oh. I’m in trouble now.’ You know. And then I…I thought I was never going to see my family again. I was really scared, you know.

And then this old man, I think he was wearing a blue flannel, came up to me…he was kind of old. He was kind of bald on top…he had like a ring of gray hair…and he had glasses.” It is worth noting the level of detail and sophistication Chris reached with his false memory, including specificities about the location, his feelings, the conversations he had, the appearances of people, and everything in between. As if the brain had written a whole movie just from an outline of the plot.

More interestingly, when he was debriefed and told that the memories were false, his reaction was — ‘Really? I thought I remembered being lost…and looking around for you guys. I do remember that. And then crying. And mom came up and said, ‘Where were you? Don’t you… Don’t you ever do that again.'” He couldn’t believe that this was unreal, and it was as if he’d lived that experience that had never happened.

This case study presented by Loftus and the scientific experiment done by Loftus and Pickrell just show how powerful fake narratives are and the lasting impact they carry on subjects exposed to them. Over the next several years, these false narrative studies have been proven by various case studies, including Garry and Wade 2005; Hyman and Billings 1998; Hyman et al. 1995; Hyman and Pentland 1996; Lindsay et al. 2004; Pezdek et al. 1997; Porter et al. 1999. In fact, in 2017, the famous YouTuber Michael Stevens captured this very phenomenon of fake narratives in false memory through his video series, Do You Know Yourself? – Mind Field in​ ​a 21st-century-themed full HD video study that brought life to these plain old text-based research papers.​

How does such false memory develop?

According to Hyman and Kleinknecht 1999, Hyman and Loftus 1998, and Mazzoni et al. 2001, there are four distinct stages involved in the formation of false memories. ​First, subjects must find the event plausible. Second, they must develop a belief that the event happened. ​Third​, construct a memory of what the event would have been like. ​Fourth, mistakenly attribute their constructed memory to actual experience.As Loftus established in Hyman and Loftus 1998, the false narrative paradigm closely follows each of these stages, and as we discuss next, Wade examine each of these stages in the use of fake photographs for false memories.

In Fridenberg & Silverman*, the text talks about different models of long-term memory and how everything is always accessible once it reaches the long-term memory. More specifically, the text talks about episodic memory that contains episodes or personally experienced events that we are not consciously aware of. This supports the Hyman et al. model as it shows the vulnerabilities of such long-term memory and the fallibility of the retrieval process for such memories.

A picture is worth a thousand lies: false photographs.

I remember being home for Christmas last month, and my mom took out the old family album of when I was a 5-year-old kid. At first, all of the photos looked strange to me, not being able to recognize anyone in the photos or any places or events. But my brother, my dad, and my cousins jumped in — stirring conversations about different events which, in fact, started to form vague, disconnected fragments in my mind. Soon enough, I began to ​recall ​memories behind many of those photos. But I wondered if those were actually true memories or if they were false memories constructed through suggestions.

Wade exploits this exact phenomenon. Wade et al. (2002) said that we know false narratives can lead to false memories, but what about other forms of suggestive media, such as photographs? They questioned if such fake photographs could have the same effect, especially considering them as authoritative evidence according to Hyman’s stages. In the experiment, they use the “lost in the mall” approach by Loftus and Pickrell but instead, replace narratives with photographs.

They ask subjects about four childhood events, one of which was a photoshopped image of a hot air balloon ride, something that never happened, according to family members. Interestingly, after three interviews, 50% came to develop false memories of the ride. Not only did they remember the incident, but they also reported vivid additional details like: “I’m certain it occurred when I was at, um, the local school… Um, basically, for $10 or something, you could go up in a hot air balloon and go up about 20 odd meters… it would have been a Saturday, and I think we went with, yeah, parents and, no, it wasn’t, not my grandmother, not certain who any of the other people are there.

Um, and I’m pretty certain that Mum is down on the ground taking a photo.” And similar to false narratives, they expressed astonishment during debriefing on learning that the photograph was fake — “Is that right? Yeah, truly? How’d you do that?!” Suggesting that they truly believed that what they were reporting was a real memory. Sutherland et al. Sutherland et al. proved that fake photographs can produce false memories for even implausible events, such as having a tea date with Prince Charles.

In their study, six and 10-year-old children were equally likely to develop a memory of the balloon ride vs. the tea date with Prince Charles with just as much vivid details from the cost of a ride to family activities. However, 6-year-olds were more likely to develop false memories than 10-year-olds (40% vs 17%). These studies by Wade et al. and Sutherland et al. show how fake photographs can easily stir people to report false experiences as real

. Considering Fridenberg & Silverman*, the text discusses the hippocampal system of the brain and, more specifically, how the hippocampus acts as an integrator, combining and reuniting fragments of experience into a single unified memory. I suspect this is what we observe when experiencing this automatic gap-filling mechanism in human brains that takes parts of suggested memories and then makes sense of them by combining and inter-relating these fragments with real episodic memory.

Combing fake photographs and false narratives

In Section 1, we described how powerful false narratives are in suggesting false memories, while in Section 3, we show the power of fake photographs in stirring people to report false experiences as real. However, what if we combine the two? Lindsay et al. explored this by asking subjects to remember three school events, one of which was false. They gave all of their subjects a narrative describing the event, while half of those subjects were also given a class photograph accompanying the event.

They found that while 45% of those who read the narrative developed false memories, 78% of those also with class photographs remembered the event. This demonstrates how powerful the suggestion could be when including both false narratives as well as fake photographs, as it becomes a springboard and amplifies the formation of false memory according to Hyman’s stages we discussed in Section 2.

Memes and fake news on social media.

All of the studies that we have discussed so far were published over two decades ago in the pre-internet and pre-social media era. In the last ten years or so, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have caused a dramatic shift in information distribution and the way people consume information today. Since the 2016 election, there has been widespread concern about the role of false stories, a.k.a, fake news, circulated through social media. Since there are no barriers to sharing content on social media, anyone can share anything that they want to, including false stories.

Any individual with no historical track record or reputation can go viral on these platforms and reach millions of people and, in some cases, more than the readers of traditional news media like CNN, NYT, Fox News, etc. In fact, according to Gottfried and Shearer 2016, 62% of adults in the US get news on social media. This shows the sheer value of social media platforms in news consumption and the apparent fatality of ease of sharing any kind of information, including fake news.

Fake news can be considered in parallel to false narratives that we study today. As an individual consuming news through social platforms, if I come across fake news that matches Haymen’s model of false memory formation, it would act as a springboard for formulating false memories about particular events or people.

As Silverman discusses, such fake news is generally geared towards propaganda, for example, how fake news stories tended to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. In fact, Silverman even asserts that the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories. Silverman and Singer-Vine 2016 demonstrate how the people who see fake news stories also report that they believe them.

Lazer et al. discuss in detail the science behind fake news and how “people prefer information that confirms their preexisting attitudes (selective exposure), view information consistent with their preexisting beliefs as more persuasive than dissonant information (confirmation bias), and are inclined to accept information that pleases them (desirability bias).” This is clearly in line with Haymen’s model of false memory formation and suggests the role of fake news in building false experiences.

Fake news is rapidly spread across the internet through sharing on social media, often in the form of memes — the viral media content of the internet that includes images and videos. First coined by Richard Dawkins, memes are anything that spread rapidly from one person to another, often along with some minor variations.

In 2007, Knobel and Lankshear documented the content of many Internet memes and how most are intended to provide humor or social commentary. R.E. Guadagno et al. take the work a step forward, and they conclude that only content that generates stronger affective responses is likely to spread virally on the internet. They further establish that we are more likely to forward funny videos as we share this information with friends and acquaintances, and we want them to experience the same pleasure that we did, irrespective of authenticity.

In agreement with Guadagno et al. (2010) on the role of contagion, they also assert that due to the ease of sharing information, i.e., sharing a meme with 20 friends or forwarding into a group chat is easier, we are more likely to share content we find in agreement with, often wrapped as memes under the disguise of fake news. This shows the sheer power of memes and the internet in spreading fake news, and as we discussed how easily fake news can form false memories… we can deduce a relation between the spread of memes with fake news and the generation of such false memories.

Conclusion In conclusion, through this paper, we studied the power of the false narrative paradigm and the use of fake photographs in stirring false memories. Through the research of Lindsay et al., we conclude how the combined power of the two amplifies the springboard effect in Haymen’s model, suggesting the development of false memories. Finally, we view this research in light of the post-internet and social media era, discussing the widespread use of social media for news consumption and the ease of publishing false stories or fake news through these platforms.

We then discuss memes and the inherent viral sharing they bring due to their nature and the ease of sharing media enabled by technology. This suggests the deep and mostly unlooked role of memes in spreading fake news through the internet and the consequent formation of false memories that can influence a variety of actions in real life (such as the 2016 elections). In consideration of the Fridenberg & Silverman textbook, through this paper, we see the adverse consequences of the hippocampus in storing long-term memories and its role in combining fragments into complete episodic memories.

We see how such long-term memories, due to their unique retrieval mechanism, can be fooled through appropriate activations with suggested memories and by giving it enough time to “fill the gaps” by ​retrieving​ false memories. Once such false memories are retrieved, they are also stored back due to recency (as we study in the text) and thus generate​ false memories that people believe to be true even after being debriefed about their falseness. As a point of further discussion and research, there lies an opportunity to conduct in-depth case studies on the use of memes in spreading false stories and the direct correlation between reading false stories and forming false memories.

This paper provides a platform to build a deductive hypothesis based on existing research, but empirical studies must be conducted to prove actual results. Further, as we observed the power of false narratives and fake photographs in suggesting implausible and entirely false experiences – there lies a scope of work on harnessing this phenomenon for good. For helping people with depression, trauma, etc. – to rewire such memories in treating patients and producing a healthier lifestyle. In fact, the TV series ​Sherlock Holmes depicted this exact use case, as he had rewired the memory of his sister killing his friend as a dog being lost on the beach.


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Use of Fake News Narratives and Memes to Generate False Memory. (2023, Aug 11). Retrieved from

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